Page 6, 19th June 1998

19th June 1998
Page 6
Page 6, 19th June 1998 — The stricter the better

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The stricter the better

DAMIAN THOMPSON asks why people like being told what to do

Sacred Companies: Organizational Aspects of Religion and Religious Aspects of Organizations, edited by N.J. Demerath, Peter Dobkin Hall, Terry Schmitt and Fihys H. Williams, Oxford University Press £39.50.

UK Christian Handbook: Religious Trends, edited by Peter Brierley, Christian Research £25.


strong? This is the ques tion posed by one of the


strong? This is the ques tion posed by one of the

essays in Sacred Companies, a rather forbidding symposium on churches and organizational theory; but it's also a subject which the Catholic Church in this country must address if it is to secure its future in the new millennium.

Most of us assume that strictness makes churches unpopular. The supposedly sadistic priests and nuns of fifty years ago are a staple of Catholic autobiography ("Sister Margaret Mary told us that girls with unpolished shoes went straight to hell"), though the phenomenon is not exclusively Catholic: the Scots tell almost identical horror stories about the Kirk. "I'm a recovering CatholicfPresbyterian/Jehovah's Witness," people say smugly, the implication being that the strict religion of their childhood is something from which everyone in their right minds would wish to escape.

But there's a problem with this assumption, and it is this: with a few exceptions, the only churches which are flourishing both here and in America are those which allow their adherents even less freedom than oldfashioned Catholicism.

To quote a topical example, the relaxed, informal "happy clappy" worship of churches like Holy Trinity, Brompton, does not reflect a relaxed, informal theology. On the contrary: HTB believes that first-century standards of sexual morality can and should be applied to everyday life at the end of the 20th century. Worshippers at HTB who are "living in sin" run the very real risk of being taken aside and reproved by their pastors, and the same goes for most other fast-growing evangelical churches. Yet sophisticated young people do not stay away from such churches as a result. They flock to them, in ever greater numbers.

The baffling appeal of strict churches has preoccupied sociologists for many years. So fascinating is the phenomenon that scholars who a few years ago regarded the study of religion as a pointless activity now specialise in it. A new school of thought has arisen which boldly applies economic models to this area. Its basic thesis is that the benefits of strict churches their dynamism and fierce sense of community outweigh the high costs incurred.

In his essay on strict churches, Laurence Iannaccone argues that the Catholic Church has somehow

managed to miscalculate both sides of this equation, "discarding cherished distinctiveness in the areas of liturgy, theology and lifestyle, while at the same time maintaining the very demands [relating to birth control and celibacy] that its members and clergy are least willing to accept." I'm not sure I agree; but I do think the Church should pay serious attention to these new and provocative theories of religious growth and decline.

Since the 1960s, Catholics have spent a great deal of time trying to fine-tune the magisterium in ways which might appeal to a wider audience. Now, perhaps, they should take a wellearned rest. As the UK Christian Handbook shows only too clearly, the pursuit of "incarnational theology" and "justice and peace" have done nothing to slow the decline of the Catholic community.

THIS IS NOT TO SAY that the Church should revert to preconciliar formulas. It would be cynical to embrace stricter theology simply to boost numbers; and, in any case, the recent success of strict Protestant churches also depends heavily on their willingness to improvise and experiment. What is clear, though, is that the Church should pay urgent attention to the mechanisms by which large institutions carve out, hold on to and lose their share of the market. Otherwise the future looks pretty grim.

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